#ocTEL Week 0: Reflections on Ambitions

May 2, 2014

I signed up for ocTEL last year, but time ran away from me. After it was over, I thought “Damn, I wish I’d made more time for that”. 

In the meantime, I have continued in my job (developing eLearning for medical specilaists), and every so often think of my learners “Damn I wish they’d make more time for this”. Now that ocTEL is back, so am I. Hopefully with a resolve which will sustain. It is only 7 weeks after all. 

Why am I doing ocTEL?

Working in eLearning (or Technology Enhanced Learning), I find a real strain of the “Shoemakers children”. While we strive to make professional development accessible, useful and applicable for our learners, we rarely take the time to reflect on our own professional development. 

One issue I am painfully aware of myself is my own career trajectory in this regard. Like many I know in the eLearning space, it has been quite a circuitous route.  I’m going to talk about this, but between dashed lines, so that you can skip it if you want. 


I started out working for a large eLearning “shop” (as I called it). I was an instructional designer writing scripts for multimedia content, which was developed into Flash Learning objects and deployed to telecoms engineers to help them learn about and use telecoms hardware and software. In these early days, I was quite content writing up my scripts, suggesting graphical illustrations and interactivities (all of which had been pre-defined) and developing quizzes based on manuals we received from the Company.  I was about a year into the job (and enjoying it, and doing quite well with it) before I actually saw the finished product – the fruits of my labours as it were. How I managed so long, I do not know; but it is an indication of how foreign the development/design side of things was to me then. I saw my job primarily as a writer of scripts. 

During my time there, we went through the dot com crash and some ripples as a result of it. I actually decided to return to college, to take an MA in American Literature. To make money while doing this, I worked as a technical writer on a part time basis. I did OK with this, but my content did lean toward the didactic, rather than the purely informational. I was even then trying to teach through what should have been a manual. So, I took another part time job, but this time as an instructional designer (the first time I had actually heard the term used). This was much more satisfactory. There were 2 instructional designers, working directly with Subject Matter Experts and two graphic/programmers (who were also working part time, on work experience from their degree courses).  We were creating multimedia-based learning intended to explain the mechanisms of various industrial automation bits and pieces. This was a good time, and my colleague and a line manager were very supportive but also quite excited about learning technology. It was this experience that really sparked me into thinking: This should be my career.

Never one to make things easy for myself, I next ended up for a search marketing company, writing copy for online ads and reviewing the copy of ads submitted for online display. The project I had been working for came to a natural end, and at the time, I found it difficult to get work as an instructional designer. But then, the job titles used at that time ran the gamut from “Technical writer” to “Multimedia scripting editor for educational content ” to “instructional designer”, so I probably missed a few opportunities by not understanding what these titles meant. 

Feeling I had done my stint in search marketing, I sought a role as a web editor. The job description demanded 3 references. When I reached out to someone who I had worked with in my first job for a reference, he offered me an interview: he and a friend of his from that first company I worked for had set up their own company. It was a sort of boutique content development company, specialising in eLearning (but also taking care of marketing and other messaging). This role really formed me. I learned about web standards (which at the time seemed to shift every couple of months), learning content, real multimedia development (when I wrote design notes in scripts, people came back! They asked: Is this what you meant? I couldn’t believe it). While in this role, I had experience with Rapid eLearning tools (specifically Articulate, but also others), as well as podcasting, video development, online resource development, and collaborative learning. At the time all these things were in their infancy as learning technologies, and it was great to be working in a company with the imagination to really try to use them and use them well. The key lesson I learned from the guys I worked for here was: everything you do should have a purpose. I carry this with me to this day.

Unfortunately, 2008 rolled around, and it was like someone slammed on the brakes. With the inertia built up, I was flung through the windscreen of my job and landed on the side of the road, where I did some contract work to keep the bills paid. 

Then, about 4 years ago, I saw an ad for the job I am currently in. A medical society were seeking someone to manage the development of eLearning. I thought “I can manage the development of eLearning. Can’t I?” Really, it turned out they needed someone to just create the eLearning, and they wanted multimedia content. Well, with my experience using Rapid eLearning tools and Moodle, I said “Yes, I *can* manage the development of eLearning”.


For the past 4 years, I have been developing learning content for medical specialists. We develop using Articulate tools, and presentations given by medical specialists. Some research is also required, but the idea is to create highly interactive, multimedia content that is laden down with quizzes (medical graduates like being tested. A lot).  Our content is designed specifically to prepare medical specialists to take more hands-on learning (i.e. to give them the background, theory, explanations of what they are doing and why).  I am interested in the “Serious eLearning Manifgesto”, which was launched recently, but note that our content would not meet its exacting standards (specifically, making the learning more practical – we can’t do this, as most people are not willing to be operated upon by someone who has learned a procedure from eLearning). However, our feedback indicates that the content we are developing is helping people to better understand the various interventions they are learning to do in practice, why they must be done and how various pitfalls arise. My understanding is that our learners use the content we build as a complement to text books (which don’t test them) and lectures they attend (which may be recorded, but don’t ask too much of them in terms of engagement). They enjoy the engagement, the challenges of quizzes, the “fun” of interactivities and/or animations that explain various mechanisms. 

As I have concentrated on this sphere of multimedia-based eLearning development, I note from reading blogs and articles that the eLearning world is moving in different directions:

In terms of what we do with technology, some talk about instructional design moving into a more “curation” based area (gathering, assessing and providing digital assets such as podcasts, videos, PDFs, etc.); others see eLearning as becoming communities of practice, sharing information and experiences and gathering the same when required. Many still see multimedia as having a role.  Mostly, you hear of a mix of all of these things.

In terms of how we do what we do – this (it seems to me) has become much more fractured. Should we be teaching didactically? (I know I have to right now), should we encourage exploration? Should we mix these things. Should we just provide tools and allow learners to find their own path (as ocTEL does)? What is best? 

In terms of how we measure our outcomes – the debate here ranges wildly, because people forget that (ideally) content will be tailored to specific audiences, so there are calls that all eLearning should be measured in workplace improvement. Sounds great, unless you develop eLearning for 6 year olds. Or “All eLearning should be measured by standardised tests”, also good, unless you are trying to get people to think critically – then you need a human to determine how well that critical thinking has occurred. “No eLearning should be tested based on facts: only on application of information”, again, good, unless the specific sphere calls for an understanding of specific facts. 

For me, what is best is answered quite simply as “What is best for the learners”. However, this is not so simple, when learners may not be aware of the opportunities available to them.  One thing I like to reference here are stupid Facebook memes. I saw two beside each other the other day. One was basically “What should I do?; Let them tell you!” and the other was Henry Ford saying if he asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said “A faster horse”. I think we may be at this crossroads in Technology Enhanced Learning: determining the best way to provide learning experiences (or to direct learners to it), while the boundaries of possibility are broken around us every day.

So, why AM I doing ocTEL?

I want to catch up with the developments in other areas.  I need to better understand other approaches other people are taking to engage their learners, and better understand their experiences (as learners and those providing the learning experience).

The Experience (Tin Can) API has really ignited my imagination about what learning can be into the future, and I want to be fully prepared to exploit the potential of learning anywhere/everywhere. I should add, my fundamental starting position is that we are all learning, all the time. For me pedagogy is about designing learning experiences that can capture and enhance this natural instinct. 

By taking part in ocTEL this year, I want to engage myself further in the benefits, challenges and drawbacks of different methods of Technology Enhanced Learning. 


One Response to “#ocTEL Week 0: Reflections on Ambitions”

  1. Cheers, Brendan. At this time on a Friday evening, I’m afraid I haven’t got anything very intelligent to add, but I did enjoy and empathise with your mini-memoir (having lived through roughly similar times in the ‘industry’ and never been part of an HE or FE institution). You’ve put a lot of yourself into this. I hope you enjoy the course!

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